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This week marks Dyslexia Awareness Week starting on the 14th October. Recent research by the British Dyslexia Association suggests that about 10% of adults aged 16-65 in the UK have some difficulty reading or spelling. Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not only about literacy but affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems relating to memory, speed of processing, time perception and organisation. One way that people with dyslexia can improve their performance in work is through Assistive Technology (AT). Our membership body, the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) defines AT as any product or service that maintains or improves the ability of individuals with disabilities to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives. In the workplace, an employee who is struggling to meet targets or who is experiencing high levels of stress in the workplace may well have an undiagnosed specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia and could benefit from the vast range of AT tools available.

Our own anecdotal evidence from our BATA members suggested that the value of AT was not well understood by employers or employees and organisations may not be following best practice. Under current legislation, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff and since the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, these adjustments must be anticipated by an employer, not just provided when a disabled person has requested them.

The ageing population in the UK is another reason why employers need to develop a better understanding of the use of AT in the workplace. In 2012, there were estimated to be 11 million disabled people in the UK and the population is predicted to rise to 70 million by 2030, with a greater number of people over 65, many of whom will still be working. The majority of people acquire their disability in adulthood. The need for AT can arise at any point in a person’s career because of illness, accident or worsening of an underlying condition. The need for AT is clearly evident but is there sufficient understanding of AT in the workplace among employers and employees?

To answer that question, we commissioned research in 2012 among employers and employees to gain a clearer picture of the use of AT in the workplace. Our sample size was small with only 170 employers and 140 users of technology completing the survey. It should be noted that these sample figures were biased towards users of AT. This suggests that a wider survey of those employers with no current involvement with the AT sector might show an even lower level of knowledge of an employer’s legal obligations in relation to AT in the workplace. Even with the likely bias of the sample, there was evidence of gaps and of issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, 52% of AT users didn’t regard themselves as disabled. Users of AT appeared to be reluctant to see themselves as being disabled which means that an essential pre-requisite to a wider and more effective use of AT is a more supportive management culture.

The research revealed that a sizeable 91% of AT users said they would know who to ask for support if they needed it but reported that only 21% of their employers actively promoted the availability of AT in their workplace. This indicates that AT solutions were more likely to be offered to employees as a result of individual requests for support rather than being embedded in the culture and procedures of an organisation. A vast majority of AT users thought that more should be done to make people more aware of AT in the workplace.

Employees who used AT in the workplace also ranked its benefits highly with 30% saying it had reduced their sickness absence; 64% reported it had improved their job satisfaction and 50% said it had improved their motivation at work. Although the survey indicated substantial benefits provided by AT which could be translated into economic savings; these results would have to be validated by employers. However, according to our survey, less than half of employers measured whether the provision of AT had any effect on these key indicators. Only 17% of employers measured the impact of AT on their brand and 60% were uncertain or didn’t measure the impact of AT on sickness absence and 68% didn’t evaluate impact on performance. Further research is needed to substantiate these findings but this survey suggests that could be a higher economic as well as social return on investment in AT than employers currently realise.

Approximately 60% of employers said there was some use of AT in their organisation but less than 40% had a procedure in place, known to managers, for obtaining AT for staff. While 98% of employers saw AT primarily as a support for employees, 87% had concerns about where to find that support. More worryingly, 78% of employers thought their employees would not know what support was available, were they to ask. More work needs to be done by employers to educate and inform employees about AT about what they are entitled to expect from an employer. In terms of legal compliance, although 75% of employers knew that provision of AT in the workplace is a legal obligation, 28% thought that did not apply to them.

But the onus shouldn’t fall completely on employers: more also needs to be done to equip employers to play their part. This could be achieved by the government, the AT sector and policy makers providing objective information and advice about the AT tools readily available to them.

The lack of knowledge about AT needs to be addressed by more disability training, with an increased emphasis on the role of AT and the personal and workplace benefits that AT could provide.  Employers’ lack of knowledge of what is available and how to set about getting it, coupled with the apparent paucity of set procedures may be reinforcing employees’ perceptions that they would not find support for a request for AT, even if this is not the case.

A positive and non-discriminatory employment culture with management and HR systems geared to initiate as well as respond to AT requirements needs to be fostered. But at a deeper level, a much more profound cultural shift is also needed so that AT can be seen by all employers and by employees, whether disabled or not, as part of the appropriate tools for the job and no more remarkable in a modern workplace than those tools or equipment normally provided for all employees to ensure an effective performance. Employers need to be insistent, persistent and consistent: start at the top level and then work down. Ultimately, AT is an enabler and allows an employee to be more productive at work. It’s a win-win situation for employers, government and the AT sector if there is increased understanding and use of AT in the workplace.

Mark McCusker is CEO of Texthelp Ltd and Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA).